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Adolescent Drinking Boosts Benign Breast Disease Risk

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While results vary, many studies have found a link between drinking alcohol and increased breast cancer risk.

New results from the very large and ongoing Nurses’ Health Study II (NHS II) found a strong link between drinking alcohol during adolescence and the risk of being diagnosed with BENIGN (not cancer) breast disease. The link is important because being diagnosed with benign breast disease -- called proliferative benign breast disease -- is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in the future.

The results were published online April 9, 2012 in Pediatrics. Read the abstract of Intakes of Alcohol and Folate During Adolescence and Risk of Proliferative Benign Breast Disease.

The NHS II aims to find links between personal health and lifestyle factors and a variety of health risks. More than 116,670 female nurses between ages 25 and 44 completed a comprehensive questionnaire about their health and lifestyle when they enrolled in the NHS II in 1989. Since then, the women have regularly provided updated information on their health, diets, and lifestyles.

In this study, researchers used NHS II information and looked for links between drinking alcohol in adolescence and being diagnosed later in life with proliferative benign breast disease. Compared to women who reported little or no drinking during adolescence, women who drank during adolescence had a higher risk of proliferative benign breast disease later in life. The more the women drank during adolescence, the higher the risk.

The risk of proliferative benign breast disease was:

  • 11% higher in light drinkers (one-half to one drink per day)
  • 36% higher in modest drinkers (one to two drinks per day)
  • 35% higher in heavy drinkers (two or more drinks per day)

In 2010, the Growing Up Today study looked for links between alcohol drinking and benign breast disease in daughters of the women in NHS II. It also found a strong link between alcohol drinking in adolescence and benign breast disease.

These studies looked at benign breast disease, not breast cancer. Still, the results suggest that drinking alcohol at a young age may harm breast tissue. Because proliferative benign breast disease is by definition benign, the increased risk may not seem important. But it is.

Proliferative benign breast disease can cause breast cancer screening to have a false positive result. A false positive happens when a mammogram finds an abnormal area that looks like a cancer but turns out to be normal. Ultimately the news is good: no breast cancer. But the suspicious result usually means follow-up with one or more doctors and extra tests and procedures (more imaging studies, possibly a biopsy). There are psychological, physical, and economic costs related to false positives.

Also, women diagnosed with proliferative benign breast disease have a higher risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in their future.

Limiting or avoiding alcohol is a good idea for every girl and woman who wants to do all she can to lower her risk of breast disease, including breast cancer. You may want to talk to the daughters, granddaughters, and other young women in your life about the effects alcohol can have on health, especially breast health.

Breastcancer.org President and Founder Dr. Marisa Weiss and her daughter, Isabel, have written the book Taking Care of Your "Girls:" A Breast Health Guide for Girls, Teens, and In-Betweens. They talk candidly about breast development and breast health -- separating myths from facts and detailing steps everyone can take to improve breast health and reduce breast cancer risk over a lifetime.

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